The deep thinking and deep discussion going on in this book is my version of chick lit. If you find a narrator exploring philosophical ideas to be thrilling rather than pretentious, then a read of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas might just tickle your fancy like it did mine. It ponders its way through the complexity of relationships, roaming through explorations into science, pseudoscience and philosophy, pondering what’s able to be known and what isn’t, what’s real and what isn’t, and how we all get sucked into our own narratives.
Meg is a thirtysomething writer who’s stuck within her own novel, the one she’s kept rewriting and rewriting and deleting until it’s where it is now, back at a measly 43 pages. She’s also stuck in a relationship that’s sinking fast, is contemplating entering another, and she’s broke.
She also has rather interesting friends who have wonderful intellectual discussions. If this is the sort of dinner table conversation you like, then perhaps we should have dinner:
“Aquinas wondered what would happen if God wanted to achieve universal resurrection. In other words, bringing everybody who had ever lived back to life at the same time. What would happen to cannibals, and the people they ate? You couldn’t bring them all back at the same time, because the cannibals are made of the people they have eaten. You could have one but not the other. Ha.” I looked at Rowan. “That’s a good example of a paradox.”
“This is an interesting conundrum,” Conrad said eventually. Aquinas focuses this problem on the cannibal, but in reality everything is made of everything else. Every boat I build used to be a tree, several trees in fact, and perhaps meteorites, iron ore, plants and so on. You can’t eat your cake and have it too. I think this is where the paradox comes from.”
Depending on whether you think this sort of thing is pointless intellectual masturbation or, like me a stimulation of your imagination will determine whether you find this book a pain in the bum or a rollicking good ride.
Personally, I love books where the protagonist spends time pondering the reality of perception of her dog, Bess:
B gave me a look that I anthropomorphised into ‘What on earth are we doing now?’, so I explained to her that we were going to go and rescue Josh and then drive home to Dartmouth, and we might see some squirrels on the Lanes and when we got back it would definitely be time for her dinner. She cocked her head sharply each times he recognised a word: Josh, home, squirrels, dinner. I wondered if I could communicate with B more efficiently by using only nouns and then stringing them in the rough order that they were going to happen. Was that what the world was to B? Was it all just nouns on a timeline? There had to be a bit more to it than that: she was visibly thrilled at the idea of squirrels, even though, as I’d said to Libby, she didn’t chase them any more. She did look a bit baffled, however, that the squirrels could come between home and dinner, so I changed the order to Josh, squirrels, home, dinner. This time she whimpered slightly as I said each word. I reckoned I could probably write a book on dog psychology myself after all these years of study.
Others have commented that Scarlett Thomas is too smart for her own good, that she draws attention to herself with “Look at me, look how smart I am” intellectual cartwheel-turning. Of course, on one level that’s exactly what she’s doing, considering this novel plays with metafiction and the idea (strange to modern Wasterners) of the storyless story. However, I found the exploration of ideas to be so satisfying that for me this all panned out as playful fun rather than egotistical masturbation. Perhaps that says something about me, I’m not sure.
“One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.” I bit my lip. “Of all the theories of the universe I’ve come across, [yours] is probably the best one. Honestly. But I can’t accept theories of the universe. I think it’s too big to theorise.”
“But isn’t the point of being alive to try to answer the big questions?”
I shook my head. “For me it’s about trying to work out what the questions are.”
Questions and answers. The wonderful thing about loving both questions and answers is that when you get tired of the lack of answers, you can retreat backwards into living loving the questions. Which, paradoxically, is a much bigger and more exhilarating space in which to live, leaving entire empty rooms for mystery, and for playfulness.
The ideas played around with in this novel mean that nothing is resolved in the traditional fashion, with ends all neatly tied up. And while that annoys the hell out of me, it also makes me smile a little because, well, it’s always a little fun to be fucked with … before you go on to the next book that will probably have some neat resolutions and a bow on top. I find it interesting that while I’m quite happy with open-endedness, I did notice a vague sense of dissatisfaction on finishing this book that I couldn’t put my finger on until I considered it here.